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50 Ways to Help the Homeless

A practical guide to what the experts say can, and must, be done. Second of two.

By Monte Paulsen 9 Dec 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes e-mail and invites your solutions to homelessness in the comment forum below.

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Photo by The Blackbird.

Gregor Robertson, who was elected on a pledge to end street homelessness by 2015, spent the night before he became mayor of Vancouver touring local homeless shelters.

"Homelessness degrades every one of us," Robertson said in his inaugural address. "People say that ending homelessness is an audacious goal. And that's true. But for someone who's sleeping under a bridge tonight, or in an alley, 2015 can't come soon enough."

A field of professionals who work with the homeless and mentally ill told The Tyee that in order to meet his goal, Robertson will have to throw the city's support behind two bold but simple policies: Housing First and Treatment on Demand. And they offered the following suggestions for specific steps the new mayor and council might want to consider:

The top ten: Projects to launch in the first few weeks

1.) Appoint a Homelessness Czar, who will be responsible for coordinating housing efforts among governments and non-governmental organizations.

2.) Ask property owners to help. Make an offer to the owner of every closed hotel or shuttered apartment building in the city: Lease your building for use by BC Housing and/or a non-profit housing manager for a period of at least three years, and the city will both give you a tax break and allow your development application to proceed without interruption.

3.) Rezone the southern half of the city for rooming houses. Large homes built for extended families dot the city's southern slope. But as the makeup of those families evolves, some of those homes are under-used. Encourage their reuse as old-fashioned rooming houses -- not for the homeless per se -- but affordable housing for the students and working singles who increasingly displace the homeless from residential hotels.

4.) Build as much temporary homeless housing as possible between now and 2010. Fast-track the development of "transition villages" comprised of portable structures, staffed by trained support workers, and slated to be relocated once permanent housing is complete.

5.) Establish a city housing authority to identify, manage, acquire and possibly even develop rental housing at and below market rates. The coming condo crash could provide a stock of empty units in need of professional management.

6.) Hire a mental health advocate who, among other duties, will be responsible for coordinating treatment efforts among governments and non-governmental organizations.

7.) Open a sobering center, where anyone can dry out for a day. With the right supervision, such a "drunk tank" might have saved Frank Paul's life, and would likely free up detox beds for those who really need them. (P.S.: The Vancouver Police already have the facility.)

8.) Lobby for treatment funding in private, and put the spotlight on alternative treatment in public. Check out Vancouver Coastal Health's innovative DayTox program, and take a look at one of the more successful private recovery houses, such as The Last Door in New Westminster.

9.) Initiate quarterly homeless connect events. With live music, free food and valet parking for shopping carts, these trade fairs for the homeless, make it easy to learn about existing social services: Simply wander the aisles of an event where every provider has a table. Sweeten the deal with free clothing, shoes, phone calls, counselling, medical treatment, dental care, eye exams and glasses, benefits information and government identification cards.

10.) Launch a "Homes Corps." Nurture the creation of a not-for-profit, Peace Corps-like agency that will focus the efforts of community volunteers, university students and individuals transitioning out of homelessness.

Housing First

11.) Press BC Housing to reopen the Pender Hotel and other shuttered residential hotels as soon as feasible.

12.) Insist that newly reopened residential hotel rooms be used to house the street homeless first. Resist room shuffling, which can wind up reducing the number of units.

13.) Dedicate more women-only buildings and programs. Women endure daily intimidation and frequent assault inside shelters and residential hotels. Besides, there are already far more men-only programs.

14.) Provide meals. At the end of a pilot project in which meals were delivered daily throughout one Downtown Eastside residential hotel, residents reported using fewer drugs -- and most had gained weight.

15.) Allow pets. The no-pets policies at many shelters and residential hotels are a significant barrier to housing for those who regard their dogs as their only family.

16.) A free kennel would also help alleviate the no-pets problem. Also, the creation of a 24-7 drop-in kennel is precisely the sort of project that could be undertaken by a charity, freeing up tax dollars for the hard costs of housing and treatment.

17.) Likewise, a free short-term storage facility that provides a place for the homeless to securely park bicycles and shopping carts would help.

18.) Stop playing whack-a-mole with peaceful campers. Until the city has enough housing to offer, allow discrete, individual campers to sleep in peace. (Tent cities are another matter.)

19.) Enforce the city's existing standards of maintenance bylaws to prevent rental buildings from being closed or illegally converted to tourist hotels.

20.) Unlock condos as rental units. Encourage to strata councils to remove no-renting policies, and levy higher taxes against those that refuse to do so.

21.) Match renters to empty buildings. Be prepared should a glut of unsold condos hit the market next year. Through the new housing authority (suggestion #5), make it easy for condo owners to find pre-vetted tenants -- literally overnight.

22.) Buy a few motels. Use the Property Endowment Fund to buy motel properties that offer short-term housing and long-term development potential for the city, such as the City Centre on Main Street or others along Kingsway.

23.) Seize grow-ops. Just as some law enforcement agencies seize vehicles, explore the possibility of seizing grow-ops and drug houses, renovating them, and converting them to rooming houses. Let the former owners sue for the value of the (usually trashed) property seized.

Treatment on Demand

24.) Create alternatives to detox. Addicts who want to stop using for the day but are not yet ready to commit to detox need safe places to take a time out, and possibly receive some limited support. An alternative chill space would differ from a sobering centre (#7) in that it would not be operated by the police.

25.) Detox on demand. No matter what shape a new treatment landscape assumes, detox for everyone who wants it will play a part. The city needs to partner with agencies and NGOs to create more spaces immediately.

26.) Extended in-patient treatment. Four- to six-weeks of treatment is not sufficient time to change the habits of addicts who have used drugs daily for years. For many who seek abstinence-based recovery, stays of six months or more are required.

27.) Fund recovery houses. Among the easiest ways to immediately increase the number of treatment beds available to the homeless would be to license and fund 12-step based recovery houses. But because Vancouver Coastal Health refuses to fund them these non-medical facilities, all but the worst-run are beyond the reach of most homeless individuals.

28.) Encourage therapeutic communities among other faiths. Some addicts have difficulty with the Christian focus that pervades many 12-step recovery programs. Once a licensing and funding formula is developed for recovery houses, why not encourage temples and other faith-based communities to tap in to the program by developing their own alternative treatment communities.

29.) Expand DayTox. Vancouver Coastal Health's successful DayTox program -- in which recovering addicts live in their own homes, but attend programs during working hours -- is worth expanding, both within Vancouver and across the province.

30.) Make house calls. Many homeless people are unwilling to enter into any form of in-patient treatment, but will consent to being visited in their residential hotel rooms. The old-fashioned house calls approach has proven particularly beneficial for those who are both addicted and mentally ill, and do not fit easily into residential facilities designed for one group or the other. (Also, this is part of how the Housing First and Treatment on Demand policies work together: An individual must have a door before it can be knocked upon.)

31.) Support and expand on the upcoming Assertive Community Teams study, which will enroll 300 homeless and mentally ill people in three different outpatient treatment models. (P.S., this program comes with funding and a time limit -- making its participants a perfect match for a landlord willing to reopen a shuttered SRO for a few years.)

32.) Provide housing after treatment. Perhaps the most shameful gap in the housing safety net is the one many addicts fall through after they get clean, as they are returned to the same sort of social housing in which they used.

33.) Replace Riverview: 275 beds were slated to be replaced by recovery units throughout the city. In the years we've spent waiting, the need has grown to the point more may be required. Ideally, these would be built as small supportive facilities scattered throughout the city

Connecting communities

34.) Declare an emergency. With so many untreated people who have been on the street for more than a year, ask the public health officer to declare the current situation a public health emergency.

35.) Launch a campaign. "More than anything else," one longtime advocate for the homeless told The Tyee, "It's Gregor Robertson's job to persuade the citizens of Vancouver that ending homelessness is everyone's job."

36.) Launch a foundation or two, such as Streets to Home, to solicit and disburse corporate donations.

37.) Ask the Chamber of Commerce to pitch in, not only with money but with management and staffing.

38.) Ask the Olympic sponsors for help. Unless they want to see their logos become targets (like the Vanoc clock) and their parties overrun by housing protesters, it's in the Olympic sponsors' self-interest to be seen as part of the solution.

39.) Invite the neighbours. Include representatives from Burnaby, Richmond, New Westminster, Surrey, the Langleys and the North Shore communities in everything Vancouver does. "And every so often," one local activist noted, "Mayor Robertson needs to lean over and say to Mayor Corrigan, 'So, you're going to do some of these projects too, aren't you?'"

40.) Include the homeless themselves, along with the under-housed, on every committee and as part of every project.

41.) Involve faith-based groups. All temples and churches can bring compassion and volunteers to the effort. Some even have property on which housing could be developed in conjunction with expanded facilities.

42.) Recruit students, both as volunteers and as seasonal interns.

43.) Urge volunteers and interested citizens to take a two-day Mental Illness First Aid course, through which participants can become more aware of how mental illness works and better able to manage and prevent mental health meltdowns. This MIFA program is offered through the Canadian Mental Health Association.

44.) Ask the Vancouver Foundation to expand and build its course for prospective managers of residential hotels, and start training support staff at all levels. Most of the projects on this list are going to need skilled support workers.

45.) Create a support staff development office. Identify the staffing needs implied by the projects underway, and assist in identifying and preparing the workers that BC Housing and local NGOs will soon require.

46.) Create as many training jobs as feasible, and award them to individuals who are transitioning out of homelessness. BladeRunners is just the beginning.

47.) Support projects such as United We Can and Megaphone Magazine, which already do this.

48.) Involve these volunteers in homeless prevention at every level, from schools to programs that reach out to seasonal workers.

49.) Likewise, combine staff and volunteers to operate prevention programs for everyone facing imminent release from prisons, jails, hospitals, treatment centres and especially foster care homes.

50.) Tell jokes, dance, and party! Sure, homelessness is a life-and-death issue. But ending it is going to require a sustained effort. It's O.K. to have a little fun along the way. In fact, it's necessary.

The consensus among the experts who spoke to The Tyee was straightforward: If the City of Vancouver embraces a Housing First approach, cajoles the province into funding Treatment on Demand, and inspires the public to tackle a list of small projects such as those listed here, then we can end street homelessness by 2015 -- if not sooner.

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